Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Stuck on repeat

If you are a UK national living in the EU or a EU national living in the UK you are probably worried about how the Brexit negotiations might impact on your daily life.  You are probably worried about your right to buy and sell property, your right to work, your right to education or perhaps your right to healthcare.  If you are thinking of making a move you have probably either shelved or accelerated your plans.  Concrete change, however, could be years ahead.  Until then we are all in a state of limbo.  Are there any signs in the meantime that might give hints to our border-hopping future?  Well, feast your eyes on Switzerland: not only a land of erotic adventure but also at the forefront of negotiations to limit inward EU migration.

This is quite a long-winded and dull post so here's some music with a semi-appropriate song title to be getting on with while you're reading.  Take it away Ms Boots.

Switzerland has a system of direct democracy.  This means that key decisions are made by referendum.  The outcome of each referendum is legally binding and must be implemented within three years.  One such referendum back in February, 2014 was the "Masseinwanderungsinitiative".  This referendum was called to decide whether to place limits on inward migration from the EU.  Now, Switzerland has something like 120 treaty agreements with the EU.  Despite not being in the EU, the influence of the EU can be felt absolutely everywhere, from food hygiene to flight noise regulations.  I am living in the leafy city of Zurich because Swizerland was/is a signatory to the EU freedom of movement of labour.  Without that one particular treaty agreement it would have been a much harder decision to make the move.  On a roughly 50% turnout, 50.3% of votes cast decided to put a cap on inward EU migration.  I'm glad I came earlier rather than later.

If you are good at arithmetic you will have worked out that the Swiss government has just 7 months remaining to complete its negotiations.  If arithmetic isn't your strong point then the outcome is exactly the same:  7 months to complete all negotiations.  Why would you think your arithmetic skills would change the negotiation timeframe?  Pay attention.  Anyway, it would be fair to say that the negotiations are not going well.  Really, not well at all.  Did I mention they weren't going very well?

It seems that both sides have reached an impasse.  The EU is simply unwilling to give up its founding principles.  The Swiss side, on the other hand, has to find a path that doesn't endanger the prosperity brought by the remaining 119 treaties (some would argue they all brought prosperity by luring tech hotshots like, erm, me).  Neither side can reach an agreement.

What are the possible outcomes?  If you are an alert reader and you read the links above then everything from now on in this post is just repeats.  There might be some not-hilarious anecdotes near the end and maybe a pop video with an apt song title but, honestly, you might as well bugger off now.  I suspect that any readers of this blog are right lazy sods so I'll give a quick summary.  The first option is to re-run the referendum, perhaps adding some more detail to the question.  I imagine something like "Do you wish to a) push the nuclear button and trigger an unending misery of famine and pestilence or  b) go back to the way it was when you were young and free and happy and beautiful and in love."  There are plenty of examples around Europe of referendum re-runs until the public give the "correct" answer.  After all, voting twice is surely twice as democratic as just voting once.  This might happen but it will take time because Switzerland is an organised society and not prone to outbreaks of spontaneity.  Meanwhile, the clock ticks towards the deadline.  The only certainty is that the deadline will happen years before a second referendum can be organised.

The next option, and one that might follow the first, is that Swizerland just imposes the cap without any formal agreement and awaits response from the EU.  Remember that the government are obliged to do something in response to the referendum result.  That sounds fairly terrifying, to be honest.  Switzerland is a small country of just 8 million people.  Its immediate EU neighbours are similarly wealthy countries and number something like 200 million.  I fear that option is not going to end well for Switzerland.

Let's move on to the last option.  This pretty much kicks the can down the road and leaves everything kind of in place as it is now.  Basically, Switzerland and the EU agree some conditions under which specific caps could be triggered per region or per profession based on relative rates of unemployment.  A Swiss/EU committee would then oversee the decisions.  I'd imagine that the cap would never be triggered.  Just like Brexit, nobody really wants to press the button. Having said that, there would be an immediate change that should be of concern to every EU national living in Switzerland. As it stands, my rights to work and reside here are granted for the whole of Switzerland.  Those rights are issued by the migration office of Canton Zurich because residency is actually a matter for cantons rather than the government in Bern.  Thanks to the EU, however, the migration office of every canton grants nationwide rights to all EU nationals because, well, they have to.  If this final option is implemented I would expect my next "Aufenthaltsbewilligung" to be granted only for Canton Zurich.  That makes me a little nervous.  What happens if I want to work in Zurich but live in Canton Zug or vice versa?  That is exactly the kind of thing that many people do: Zug is only 25 minutes away by very comfortable train.  How exactly will that work out?  Well, history provides some clues.  In the old days, foreign nationals had to work and live in the same Canton.  Bloody heck, that sounds a bit shit.  Good news for removal firms, though.

You might be thinking that the pragmatic per-region cap sounds quite attractive because at the very least it avoids the nuclear option.  Could this work in the UK?  Well, no and no and no again.  The UK simply doesn't work like that.  Rights to residence and work are granted by the UK government and cover the entire UK.  The regions simply have no power to grant settlement rights to foreign nationals.  That is even true of Scotland, which has the most powerful devolved parliament in the UK.  Yup, even Scotland, as long as it remains part of the UK, has no rights over immigration.  All of those powers lie in Westminster and are executed UK-wide.  If you have the right to work in London, then you also have the right to a holiday home in Hastings;  a boat in Bournemouth;  a castle in Caithness; and a petting zoo in Perth. Changing any of that would require a huge constitutional change.  This is not going to happen.

Where does that leave us?  Well, you've wasted your time reading this if you expected firm conclusions.  We have learned that the EU takes the freedom of movement of labour very seriously, indeed.  One other thing is that a new UK Prime Minister will be appointed today.  I'm just in from work so this might have already happened.  Everyone, meet Theresa May.  Her husband is a banker.  That wasn't an insult - he really is a banker. It should be of no surprise to anyone that leading figures in the Conservative Party have close links to bankers.  Now, what do banks want? They want post-Brexit access to European financial markets.  Meanwhile, I'd imagine that Frankfurt and Paris and Dublin have their eyes on all that lucrative Canary Wharf skrilla.  The EU will not want to cede this without the UK adopting the founding principles of the EU.  Theresa May has already said she expects the freedom of movement of labour to end in the UK.  In fact, she's been saying this since last year.  Expect another impasse, just like the Swiss/EU one.  Yes, there it is, a rock solid conclusion at last.  No, not a mountain pass.  AN IMPASSE.  AN IMPASSE.  I give up.

Over and out,


PS you might be wondering where a middle-aged loser like me learnt the word "skrilla".  Well, step forward Wiley and take a bow for expanding my vocabulary.  I don't go around using it, though.  It would feel a bit stupid:  I'm a middle-aged man living in leafy Zurich.  I'm not even sure that I won't come back later and edit that sentence.  Before I engage in historical revision it's over to you Wiley.

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